Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Kalamazoo Promise

Sometimes people just do the right thing for the right reasons. You have to wonder why initiatives like The Kalamazoo Promise aren't adopted and implemented more often. What if more and more communities committed themselves to to leveraging their good will and their capital to invest in the most valuable renewable resource of all -- our children?

Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo.

No, the Kalamazoo Project is not too good to be true! (GW)

School chief leaves with lips sealed

By Katherine Yung
Detroit Free Press
August 20, 2007

KALAMAZOO -- Janice Brown knows how to keep a secret.

For the last 21 months, the departing superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public School system has steadfastly refused to answer the question that many of the city's nearly 73,000 residents -- and many far away from town -- have pondered.

Who are the wealthy donors making it possible for every Kalamazoo child to attend college in Michigan without paying a dime?

Brown says she's still the only one who knows.

That knowledge gives her a unique role in carrying out the Kalamazoo Promise, a widely admired scholarship program that began nearly two years ago.

Brown, 58, serves as the link between the donors and the rest of the world, meeting periodically with them in locations she won't reveal. She sees herself as the Promise's spokeswoman, traveling anywhere from Miami to Arkansas to talk to economic development groups and the many cities and states eager to emulate the program.

If the secret has ever become a burden to her, the Detroit native doesn't let on.

"I'm very humbled and appreciative of the incredible generosity that I have experienced firsthand," she said from her office just down the street from Western Michigan University. "It's probably caused me to even be more generous with what I have."

The Promise has turned Brown into a mini-celebrity of sorts in Kalamazoo. She's been stopped on the streets because people recognize her.

"They love her," said Michelle Miller-Adams, a political scientist writing a book about the Promise. "They are grateful to her for pulling this together."

In at the start

Brown helped spur the development of the Promise. The idea sprang from a series of informal conversations between the veteran educator and the donors over the course of two to three years.

"I don't think we would have had the Promise were it not for Janice," said Hannah McKinney, Kalamazoo's mayor and an economics and business professor at Kalamazoo College. "She's a little Energizer bunny with a lot of integrity."

Brown won't say how she met the donors, but she credits them for coming up with a plan to give every Kalamazoo student an opportunity to attend college.

"It was really the idea of the donors after a long, long series of discussions about a question," she said. "What can we do to make a turnaround, to make an impact on an urban city in which we really wish to invest? And over and over again, the answer seemed to be invest in education, invest in our youth."

During this past school year, the program paid $1.6 million for tuition for 340 students. Another 400 to 450 students from the class of 2007 will be covered starting this fall.

So far, the Promise has boosted the district's enrollment and graduation rates. And it's increased the number of African-American students headed to college.

"I think they are actually quite thrilled," Brown said of the donors. "In our conversations, we never anticipated the national and international media coverage we would experience."

But don't expect the donors to ever reveal their identities.

"It's not important to them," Brown said. "There's no reason to."

Brown fiercely guards their privacy, but she did drop one clue -- unless it's a diversion. "I'm sure you're aware they could be from out of town," she said. "Lots of people have an investment in this area that have done very good work."

A matter of trust

The donors trusted Brown enough that they didn't make her sign any documents pledging to safeguard their anonymity.

"In my job, I'm required to maintain a high degree of confidentiality about a number of things," she said. "For me, I don't even think about that very much anymore. I think about mostly how we are going to get the work done as a community and my part of it, the public education piece."

The Promise is a fund overseen by a tax-exempt private foundation. Its only employee, administrator Robert Jorth, does not know who the donors are.

Neither does a three-member, unpaid board that meets once a year to monitor the fund's spending. The board consists of an attorney, an accountant and a retired school principal.

The donors don't tell Brown how to do things.

"They are largely silent on the issue of how the Promise should be implemented," she said. "The donors believe that the Kalamazoo Promise is a greater Kalamazoo community issue and that we need to go through the struggles, we need to go through the questions ... and figure this thing out on our own.

"That's why the donors are anonymous -- because they've done their work," she added. "There's nothing more for them to do."

Those who work with Brown aren't surprised that she can keep such a big secret.

"She's probably the most positive person I've ever met," said Pam Kingery, executive director of the Kalamazoo Communities in Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the city's schools. "But she's not afraid to talk about problems, to be honest about problems."

Experience adds up

Brown started out as a special education teacher in Grand Rapids and has held nearly every kind of public education job, not just in western Michigan but also in Lansing and Ypsilanti.

In 1997, she came to Kalamazoo as an executive director for curriculum, rising to superintendent in 2000. Since then, she's restored confidence in the city's schools and improved literacy, said Timothy Bartik, a school board member and senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

But Brown's hands-off management style caused some problems, said Millie Lambert, president of Kalamazoo Education Association, the teachers union. The union complains that the Promise has led to bigger classes without increased support for teachers. Brown's successor, Michael Rice, will face those issues.

He takes over today, but Brown will stay on for six to seven months to assist in the transition.

For most educators, the Promise would seem the perfect way to end a public education career spanning more than three decades.

But Brown wants to keep working. For now, she's not sure what she'll do. Or how her role in the Promise could change.

"That's one of the things I have to figure out," she said. "I'm very deeply rooted in the Kalamazoo community and I take that obligation very seriously. It feels good to have those deep roots. I don't want to go anyplace."


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